The woman looked absolutely perplexed when I asked her for direction in English.

Assuming that she is a foreigner based on her dark skin tone, I stopped her in the streets to inquire the whereabouts of a local park in an unfamiliar neighborhood of Tokyo. But clearly, the lady did not comprehend the words that were coming out of my mouth.

Embarrassed that I had inadvertently stepped into the landmine that is the definition of who is a Japanese person, I quickly switched into Japanese to apologize. The woman was good-natured about the incident, apparently quite used to people mistaking her for a foreigner. But her explanation of her Japanese identity was a rather odd one. Remarking that her father is Jamaican and her mother Japanese, she nonchalantly said, “I am fully Japanese because I cannot speak any other language other than Japanese.”


Credit: Reuters / TPG

Japanese tennis star Naomi Osaka.

Without a doubt, language is one of the main criteria that people use to define their national identity. Quite often, being able to speak the dominant language of a particular country or ethnic group is a social prerequisite for being accepted as a member of the group. Indeed, quite relevant for this Jamaican-Japanese woman is the scrutiny tennis champion Naomi Osaka is currently receiving for her lack of Japanese language skills as she debates which country to play for.

Yet, this woman has taken the relationship between identity and language to a whole new level. Instead of using language fluency as a sign of belonging to a particular group, she used the lack of language fluency to prove exclusion from other social groups. The double negative, as her logic would go, makes her bond with one and only one social group even stronger through unquestionable exclusivity.

The same logic is not limited to this particular person or just Japan. A recent incident saw a popular Chinese blogger criticized for saying that English is a “garbage skill” for most Chinese people.

In Taiwan, official policies toward fostering a different multifaceted social identity have become contradictory. On one hand, efforts to introduce English as a second official language seek to make the population more "international" through greater communications with other cultures. At the same time, the government has also sought to make the Taiwanese aboriginal identity stronger by revitalizing indigenous languages unique to the island. These policies have in turn driven confusion among the general populace, creating what one analyst sees a deeply skewed understanding of how citizens perceive the nature of a non-Chinese identity for Taiwan – and this is on top of the predictable outcry over an effort to standardize English language fluency throughout the country.

Read More: CARTOON: English as a Second Language – Hao or Nga'ay?

Even in the United States, where ethnic identities among migrants can be strong, the concept of teaching children to speak more than one language is facing a backlash.

It is certainly unfortunate that many people are not seeing the benefits of speaking more than one language fluently. With greater communication across borders due to the expansion of international commerce, people-to-people exchanges, and information technology, language skills are no longer confined to small numbers of globe-trotting elites but a prerequisite for even normal people to interact meaningfully and productively for work and personal interests. Those who are unable to understand multiple languages can become increasingly close-minded as they limit themselves to less information from fewer, less diverse sources.

And it is even more unfortunate that people use identity to justify lack of efforts to acquire foreign language skills. As monolingual people are confined to only the sources of information that they can understand, they will increasingly amplify their nationalism and the narrow-minded views they may hold, based on their increasing inability to interact with people from different backgrounds who have different views and ways of thinking. Being surrounded only by people who are just like them in looks, social orientation, and ideology will only serve to entrench their closed sense of nationalism, further reducing their desire to learn new languages and about people outside their group.

To eradicate the mentality that links monolingualism with a strong identity, it is important that educational institutions separate a foreign language from a foreign culture. It is completely justified that the half-Jamaican woman will try to prove her “Japanese-ness” in any way she can, including distancing herself from the language of her father, to prevent being ostracized by “pure” Japanese people. But that threat of ostracization emerges only when the Japanese are educated that any language that is not Japanese is fundamentally “un-Japanese” and those who speak them are “less Japanese.”

Removing the association of foreign language and foreign identity in any country can only be possible through a curriculum that emphasizes foreign language learning for practical usage, without explicitly associating the foreign languages learned with identification with any foreign country. With the advent of English as a language spoken across multiple countries and cultures, changing such a monolingual mentality has never been easier. For the sake of smoother international communication in the future, this change should be undertaken now.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of The News Lens.

Read Next: By the Numbers: Is Taiwan Ready for English as a National Language?

Editor: Nick Aspinwall@TheNewsLens

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